A surreal satire of a savage dystopia, controlled by a corrupt few who manipulate the rules and the media
Manhattan, some few decades into the future. There are snows in August. The New York Times puts out double editions, one of them “war-free’’ for its more financially high-minded readers. And a fabulous tiger two stories high stalks the streets demolishing buildings, ostensibly at random, though they just happen to occupy properties coveted by one or another well-connected, real estate group.
So, not really at random; nor is “Chronic City,’’ Jonathan Lethem’s swirl of a novel, really about the future. It is, like Anthony Trollope’s “How We Live Now,’’ the sharply observed evisceration of a present manipulated and corrupted by money and power. In place of Trollope’s realism, which places certain constraints on the writer, Lethem has chosen to adopt a free-form, mythical style, not always fortunately.
It frees him to go anywhere and everywhere with a set of self-deconstructing stories, a menagerie of shape-changing characters, and an oddly didactic moral. The reader, less freed, breathes in the exhaust of such exuberant literary revving.
Lethem posits a universe of fakery; one in which the few arrange to deceive and exploit the many. They use the press, the media, crooked official measures, and the expansion of the Internet’s power to simulate reality (Facebook’s surrogate friendship, Twitter’s deceptive immediacy, Wikipedia’s twitchy facts, text-messaging to neuter the grit of voice-to-voice).
“Chronic City,’’ named for a brand of pot whose smoke envelops the novel in suffocating clouds, deploys a trio that conducts a vastly outmatched struggle for truth against the powers that be. Chief of these powers is Jules Arnheim, a billionaire mayor plainly modeled on New York’s Michael Bloomberg.
The chief resister is Perkus Tooth, a shrunken, glitter-eyed, angry figure whose posted critical broadsides once enthralled the cultural scene and who is now reduced to obsessively deconstructing obscure old movies. A second is Richard Abneg, a radical activist turned mayoral aide but still an angry man. The third, who is also the narrator, is the curiously bland Chase Insteadman, a former child actor on a TV series and now a social celebrity as the ostensible fiancé of an astronaut fatally trapped in space.
Insteadman’s name, like that of Tooth and several others, turns him into a symbol, both inflating and fading him as a character. He has been reduced or deceived into the fabric of universal fraud woven by the city’s masters. Rather puzzlingly, he only learns this at the end; by which time he has taken over leadership of the futile resistance from the possibly martyred Tooth. Possibly, that is - all facts in Lethem’s dystopian New York are deliberately blurred - because the tiger’s demolition of Tooth’s apartment and his death from hiccups may or may not be arranged from above.
Lethem’s vision of New York can approach the Swiftian. It is impressively observant in its detail and scourging in its mocking satire. There are any number of wicked portraits: a couple so rich and snobbish that they have a private house inside their luxury apartment building, with its own interior entrance as well as its own interior doorman. An even richer magnate who rents an entire hotel restaurant to offer breakfast to a single guest.
His comments on New York life are often achingly exact. Lodging is so precious and hard to find that it extends the Descartian phrase to “I have an apartment, therefore I am.’’ (When Tooth loses his and moves into a dog shelter he virtually becomes a dog). The subways: “The New York subway is a vast disordered mind, obsessing in ruts carved by trauma a century earlier.’’ And best of all, at least for the literary insider: his reflections on the safe reassurance of the New Yorker magazine.
Tooth comically analyzes its elegant type font: “the meaning embedded, at a preconscious level, by the look of the magazine; the seal, as he described it, that the typography and layout put on dialectical thought. According to Perkus, to read the New Yorker was to find that you always already agreed, not with the New Yorker but much more dismayingly, yourself.’’
So pungent and imaginative are such passages that they suggest that “Chronic City’’ might have succeeded better as an extended essay. As a novel it is both loftily ambitious and oddly offhand. The book’s fictional engine - its little band of resisters - alternately overheats, sputters, and strips its gears.
The resistance they conduct is variously far-fetched, trivial, and of a vagueness that wanders off as if forgetting itself. The ardor with which Insteadman portrays Tooth as a heroic martyr fails to summon him up as a character to care about. Although his fiercely obsessive critiques sometimes come to life, what he obsesses about is too minuscule to matter; even allowing for Lethem’s presumable message that the culture is so powerfully corrupt that even a tiny battle for truth is a revolution. Insteadman, insistently proclaiming himself an empty vessel, convinces us he’s right, thus pretty much excluding us from his urgencies.
As emblems, the novel’s figures represent far more than they personify. This can work for a myth, though Lethem’s depiction of New York as grand allegory, besides pretentious, is rather a waste of its living vitality. But even at their best, myths and symbols do poorly across long distances, particularly since they make us perform the toting (unlike stories and characters, which tote us). At more than 400 pages “Chronic City’’ is incantation on overtime.
Richard Eder reviews books for several publications.